Robots to the Rescue as Dairies Face Growing Labor and Cow Care Challenges

By Whitney Davis

Editor’s note:  Whitney Davis is the Dairy Automation Sales Director for Finger Lakes Dairy Services, the Lely dealer for central and western New York.  He has 10 years of sales and planning experience for robotic dairy operations, and has been in the dairy equipment and supply business since 1993.

 

Many dairy industry experts, and producers themselves, agree that labor and animal welfare concerns are two major issues that dairy farms face today, and those are expected to accelerate.  These two issues are somewhat related, and the good news is, so is the solution.

If you can employ equipment to cost effectively perform a most important task (harvesting milk) and this equipment can accomplish this task much more consistently than any human, which would you prefer to manage, man or machine?  We’ve replaced many manual tasks on the farm with machines, so why not milking the cows?

A proven solution working today on a growing number of dairy farms is milking cows with robots.  Currently, there are over 45,000 milking robots operating worldwide and over 3,000 in North America.  The trend is accelerating.

New Facilities Not Required

It is not necessary to build a new barn to accommodate robots.  New barns are typically built only when added housing is needed, or to replace old, insufficient facilities.  We have retrofitted numerous barns by placing robots about the free stall barns (and even into a tie stall barn), and milk is easily moved long distances to storage with milk quality maintained or even enhanced as it is cooled very efficiently.

Animal welfare benefits for cows are realized with milking robots, as is the positive image consumers develop as to how they view dairy farms.  Much of the general public has little to no connection or understanding of dairy farm practices, and what is not understood is often misinterpreted negatively.  Cows packed into holding areas, lameness, manure on floors, dirty cows, or cows chained to a tie stall, are often seen as inhumane by consumers.  I make it a practice to talk with the general public about dairy farms, and I’ve actually had people cite these examples and ask “why do farmers do these things to cows?”  The growing scrutiny and regulation of dairy cow practices is likely to increase.  These concerns can be eased with robots.  Consumers that see robots in action view them positively, and with amazement.


How are milking robots better than humans?  Total reliability and consistency in milking.  No emotions, bad moods, absences, illness, or quality of workplace concerns.  Government policies, regulations, availability challenges, and advocacy groups have much less effect on your operation.  Your cows will get milked, and get milked the right way, every time, no matter what.

Herd Management Information

Robots gather volumes of valuable herd management information.  Cow health issues are identified and alleviated much sooner.  Cows are attracted to the milking process and not pushed to meet human schedules.  The herd gets more resting time and more meals.  Often pregnancy rates increase, lameness is reduced, and cow life is extended.  The attitude and behavior of a robot herd is very noticeable as the cows are much more relaxed.  Cows learn to do what you want them to do and you manage the few exceptions using the data provided.

The return on investment of robots has become better than ever for farms of all sizes.  In some cases a dairy can employ robots for the same cost as employing humans (and that’s at today’s labor costs).  While the perception may be that robots don’t pay on a large scale, there are herds of 4,000 or more cows now employing robots.  At present, there are approximately 40 herds of over 500 cows or more in North America now using robots.

Considering an automated rotary parlor?  It’s good to compare all options, including robots.  You may find “box type” robots are a competitive option when much higher added building, utility, and labor costs of parlors are factored in.  While rotary parlors have some labor saving automation available, they are by no means comparable to a total robotic milking system since they don’t offer the same benefits for the cows as do stand-alone robots.  In any parlor cows have human involvement, see more time away from meals and resting, have more hoof problems and added heat related stress.  It’s a good idea to do an informed analysis to compare the pros and cons of robots vs. parlors with an experienced equipment consultant.

Milking robots allow you to invest in an asset rather than paying a continual fixed cost (labor) for a chore done last week.  Production labor costs are reduced vs. continuing to grow with a parlor.  Years of analysis and work with robot owners shows that long term robot maintenance costs can average $1.00/hour, and dairy workers can be trained to service and maintain robots.

Transition Planning

Any new technologically advanced milking equipment system is a major investment.  The big positive here is that milking equipment has the best payback of any equipment on the dairy given the number of hours it runs daily (24 x 365 = 8,760 hours a year!).  How many tractors do you have with 100,000+ hours that are still on the job?  Robots easily accomplish this and more.

Even if a change is not practical on your dairy for some time, it’s always a good idea to consider options and develop a plan now to remain competitive in the future.  Dairies are adding a number of robots at a time to take pressure off the aging parlor before it is totally inoperative and/or to milk more cows.  In this way, capital costs can be spread out over time versus a major capital investment all at once.  Consider a transition plan to eventually replace the old parlor entirely with robots when it is finally retired.  Individual robots also offer the ability to add units as your herd grows instead of a major expenditure upfront for an overbuilt facility.

As always, it pays to do your homework.  Not all robots or automated rotary systems are created equal.  Since you’ll be making a sizeable investment and you will use this equipment and management strategy for years to come, the time you invest to do your research will pay big dividends.  You should fully understand and appreciate the concept and be patient during the transition.  Ask yourself if you and your staff are willing and able to make this significant change.  It’s important to be sure your decision is the right one before making it.